In this yearend overview, we highlights some remarkable judicial decisions particularly by National Green Tribunal (NGT) and some ongoing legal disputes regarding violation of groundwater norms and its pollution in India in 2022. The NGT not only criticized MoJS (Ministry of Jal Shakti) new groundwater guidelines but also ordered penalizing Pepsi’s and Coke’s bottling plants in Uttar Pradesh for operating without NOCs. These were unfortunately later stayed by Supreme Court. Though the judicial interventions have once again revealed the sheer ineffectiveness of concerned bodies at central and state level however these orders have failed to bring any change in their functioning so far. NGT proceedings into allegations of groundwater pollution by liquor factory in Firozpur, Punjab has remained inconclusive while affected villagers and farmers have been staging protest for months.
In the first part of the overview, we have tracked the worsening situation of groundwater depletion and contamination in the country while in second part, we have covered some positive efforts and initiative taken by various governments for its management in 2022.
Centre’s guidelines only new cover to old scheme: NGT The guidelines issued by the Ministry of Jal Shakti to regulate and control ground water extraction in the country is only a new cover provided to the old scheme with minor variations, alterations and modifications, the NGT has said. A bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice A K Goel said the 2020 guidelines broadly do not satisfy directions given by it repeatedly and persistently.
The NGT said there is a twist when the guidelines says that NOC shall not be granted to new packaged water industries in over-exploited areas even if they belong to MSME category. “In Guidelines 2015, no NOC was to be given to any water intensive industry, even if it is MSME, in over exploited assessment areas. Now it is restricted to packaged water industries. Apparently, a drastic relaxation has been given in respect of water intensive industries, for no reason, and that too in flagrant defiance of order of Tribunal,” it said. https://theprint.in/india/centres-guidelines-on-regulation-of-ground-water-extraction-only-new-cover-to-old-scheme-ngt/849267/ (26 Feb. 2022)
Govt body names 2,069 units, grants relief Just over a fortnight after it declared as “illegal” the extraction of groundwater by 2,069 industries on June 27, 2022, including projects and units of big corporates like Tata Steel, Adani Wilmar and Ramdev’s Divya Pharmacy, the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) granted relief to them on July 14, 2022, as it extended the last date for applying for NOCs from June 30 to Sept 30. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/illegal-groundwater-extraction-govt-body-names-2069-units-grants-relief-8030096/ (17 July 2022)
Uttar Pradesh Close commercial establishments extracting groundwater illegally: NGT The NGT said that according to the CGWA’s report, over 70% of hotels or commercial establishments across 9 districts were found to be extracting groundwater illegally. A bench headed by chairperson Justice A K Goel said that the situation was alarming, defeating the directions of the Supreme Court for control and regulation of groundwater extractions.
“There is a grey area of about 25% for want of information being furnished or collected,” the bench said, adding, “We have no other option but to hold that there is an all-round failure of the statutory authorities in complying with the mandate of the judgement of the Supreme Court.” The approvals for groundwater extraction were being granted mechanically, while alternatives to groundwater extraction were not being considered, resulting in a shortage of potable water for drinking purposes, the bench said.
“Under the circumstances, the case appears to be made out to direct sealing of all establishments operating without mandatory consent to operate as per the Water Act, till compliance and registering criminal cases for theft of groundwater against owners of the establishments,” the green panel said. Determining the amount of interim compensation, the bench said it was Rs 50 lakh per establishment having more than 100 rooms, Rs 25 lakh per establishment having 50-100 rooms and Rs 10 lakh per establishment having up to 50 rooms.
The deposit has to be made within one month with the respective District Magistrates, failing which theft cases would be registered against the establishments concerned and borewells sealed, the NGT said. The already constituted joint committee of the CGWA had to assess the final compensation after giving an opportunity to the establishments concerned, within three months, it said. The committee also had to verify the compliance for non-verified establishments within one month, the NGT said.
“We further direct that while granting consents, the requirement of installing digital water meters connected to central servers may be laid down and in respect of establishments having water supply from the local bodies and also extracting groundwater, there should be separate digital meters in respect of both sources,” the NGT said. If consent was not applied for within one month, the establishments could be closed by the state pollution control board, it said.
“States other than Uttar Pradesh may also study the above directions and take further action by issuing necessary standard operating procedures (SOPs) through their Water Resources Depts and State PCBs within one month,” the NGT said. Report of the status of compliance as on April 30, 2023, had to be filed before the tribunal by May 15, 2023, the NGT said.
The tribunal was hearing an application against the unauthorised withdrawal of groundwater by 122 hotels in Ghaziabad and during the course of the hearing it took up the larger issue of such problems in nine major cities of the state — Lucknow, Kanpur, Agra, Meerut, Gautam Buddha Nagar, Bareilly, Varanasi, Jhansi, and Gorakhpur. https://www.theweek.in/wire-updates/national/2022/10/29/lgd6-green-up-groundwater.html (29 Oct. 2022)
Coke, Pepsi bottlers violated water laws, with help from govt In a stinging order issued in late Feb 2022, the NGT has found little reason to be happy about this Coca cola unit. It illegally used groundwater for at least two years—from 2018 to 2020 – at a time when the water table in the area was already critically low. The NGT order also finds similar illegalities committed by another Coca-Cola unit run by Moon Beverages in neighbouring Ghaziabad, and by a PepsiCo bottling unit run by Varun Beverages Ltd in Greater Noida.
The units are located in one of the most depleted aquifers in India, by the government’s own assessment. If this wasn’t bad enough, the NGT order has a more /troubling verdict on the state of our government regulators. It says that the union government “aided, abetted and assisted” the companies in their illegal acts while the Uttar Pradesh govt “surpassed all degrees of patent illegalities”. https://themorningcontext.com/chaos/coke-pepsi-bottlers-violated-water-laws-with-help-from-government/ (09 March 2022)
Moon Beverages (Coco Cola) and Varun Beverages (PepsiCo) were thus ordered to pay a total of around ₹25 crores for illegally abstracting groundwater & inflicting environmental harm.
The NGT also came down hard on the government regulator CGWA, pointing out various flaws in its operations. The UP Ground Water Department (UPGWD) was also held accountable as the body attempted to confer authority to the companies for extraction of groundwater without having the jurisdiction to do so. The tribunal imposed an environmental compensation of ₹1.85 crore on Moon Beverages Ltd located at Greater Noida, ₹13.24 crore on Moon Beverage Ltd’s Sahibabad unit and ₹9.71 crore on Varun Beverages Ltd’s Greater Noida unit.
A joint committee comprising the MoEF and Jal Shakti, the CPCB, the CGWA, the UPGWB and District Magistrates of concerned districts were also set up to ensure that the compensation received is utilised for recharge of ground water. https://www.barandbench.com/news/ngt-impose-25-crore-environmental-compensation-on-bottlers-of-coca-cola-pepsi-in-up-for-illegal-extraction-of-groundwater (07 March 2022)
The judgment, released on Feb. 25, 2022, faulted three bottling facilities of having violated environmental laws by operating without the required “No Objection Certificate” (NOC) to withdraw ground water which is issued by the CGWA. Furthermore, the Tribunal found both companies to have violated the terms of its license by not fulfilling its obligations to recharge ground water – a condition of the last valid license that both the companies had.
The Tribunal wrote that the companies “are responsible for illegal extraction of ground water at least after expiry of NOCs, issued to them by CGWA. They continued to extract ground water without any authority. Further, they are also liable to pay environmental compensation for causing loss to environment by failing to comply the most crucial condition of NOCs, i.e., recharge of water.” https://bit.ly/3X7rzbE
The Supreme Court stayed the NGT order imposing an environmental compensation of over Rs 15 crore on Moon Beverages. https://www.livelaw.in/top-stories/supreme-court-ngt-order-coca-cola-bottling-unit-up-illegal-groundwater-extraction-199977 (24 May 2022) The top court was hearing an appeal filed by Moon Beverages Ltd challenging NGT’s order imposing an environmental compensation of Rs 1.85 crore on Moon Beverages Ltd located at Greater Noida, Rs 13.24 crore on Moon Beverage Ltd’s Sahibabad unit, and Rs 9.71 crore on Varun Beverages Ltd’s Greater Noida unit. https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/trends/current-affairs-trends/sc-stays-ngt-order-imposing-penalty-of-over-rs-15-crore-on-coca-colas-bottling-unit-8566871.html (24 May 2022)
Companies that have flouted environmental norms in India have managed to evade the fines, an analysis based on the response to a RTI application showed. The fines in many cases were challenged in various courts and cases were dragged on for years, or the fines were repealed, it was found. The remaining fines were not even recovered.
The CPCB has not been able to recover a single rupee from the Coca-Cola Group, PepsiCo Group, Reliance Industries Ltd, Adani Group and other big companies in the last 30 years, although there was considerable environmental pollution and damage by their operations. Environmental fines are becoming limited to just show-cause notices and paper transactions. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/governance/dte-investigation-cpcb-failed-to-recover-fines-from-coca-cola-pepsi-reliance-adani-in-last-30-years-83020 (26 May 2022)
Punjab NGT notice to CS on ‘distillery hand’ in GW pollution Demanding reconstitution of the joint committee to inspect Malbros International’s distillery and ethanol plant near Zira in Ferozepur district over complaints that it was polluting the local water and air, volunteer organisation Public Action Committee (PAC) has once again moved the NGT, which has given the Punjab chief secretary a two-month notice to file a response and told him to make a personal appearance in court via videoconferencing on February 23.
The people of surrounding villages have been protesting since July 24 to put pressure on the govt to close down the distillery. The earlier joint inspection committee had claimed in its status report that the govt agencies as well as the NGT’s monitoring committee had checked the factory and, since now it was closed, it will serve no useful purpose to repeat the exercise.
On Nov 11, PAC had approached the NGT with ‘facts and circumstances’ details, demanding reconstitution of the inspection committee with members from outside Punjab and Chandigarh. The PAC said: “No polluter will dig bore holes that naked eyes can detect, so we asked the joint committee to employ technology. Since ethanol degrades within 20 days and the factory is shut for more than two months, the laboratory tests on the groundwater samples won’t detect this actual reason for contamination. But it can reveal in soil samplings at different levels.”
On Dec 8, the NGT had directed the chief secretary, SPCB chairman, board’s Faridkot regional office executive engineer, Industry department’s principal secretary, member secretary of the CPCB, Ferozepur district magistrate, and the project proponent to file their responses within 2 months. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/amritsar/in-punjab-ngt-notice-to-cs-on-distillery-hand-in-groundwater-pollution/articleshow/96239019.cms (15 Dec 2022)
NGT panel submits report on groundwater contamination by Zira ethanol plant NGT on Sep 23 2022 submitted its report of the water samples collected from Malbros International Private Ltd, an alcohol-making unit located at Mansurwal village in Zira, Ferozepur, to DC. Amrit Singh, deputy commissioner, Ferozepur, said that the report is too technical, hence they asked the Punjab PCB to interpret the same and submit the report accordingly. “We will further deal with the matter in accordance with the interpretation of the NGT report by the PPCB which might be received by tomorrow,” she said.
Since July 24, a massive protest by farmers associated with various farm unions has been going on over the alleged contamination of groundwater by an ethanol plant owned by former SAD MLA Deep Malhotra. Protesters alleged contamination of groundwater in several villages due to the discharge from the alcohol-making unit. Following the protests, the liquor factory with over 3000 employees had been lying closed since July 26.
“In the second week of July, a borewell was dug at a gurdwara in Miayanwala Kalan, located about 4 km from Mansurwal. At 670 feet, we found contaminated water which smelt like lahan. We took up the matter with the administration but to no avail. So, we launched an indefinite protest outside the factory on July 24 that has been continuing even now,” said Sandeep Singh, a protester. “Concerned over the contamination of groundwater, a large number of people are taking part in the protest and it will continue till the unit is closed permanently. As of now, it is temporarily closed as we are not allowing anyone to enter the factory,” he said. https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/chandigarh-news/contamination-of-groundwater-by-zira-ethanol-plant-ngt-submits-report-to-dc-101663965564094.html (24 Sept. 2022)
GW level to drop below 300 m by 2039 NGT monitoring committee announced recently that Punjab’s groundwater will drop below 300 metres by 2039. Punjab’s central and southern districts, such as Barnala, Bathinda, Fatehgarh Sahib, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Moga, SAS Nagar, Pathankot, Patiala and Sangrur, are among the most affected as the average yearly rate of fall of groundwater levels works out to be approximately 0.49 metre. While agriculture experts and environmentalists suggest phasing out the paddy crop, as one of the main solutions for the groundwater crisis, farmers expect assured purchase of the alternative crops planted as a replacement for paddy. https://india.mongabay.com/2022/06/accelerating-rate-of-groundwater-depletion-in-punjab-worries-farmers-and-experts/ (14 June 2022)
This forecast is based on current level of groundwater, current rate of depletion and assessment for one of the districts that usable groundwater is available till 300 m depth. Interesting, though a lot of questions arise. https://science.thewire.in/environment/punjab-farming-groundwater-depleted-2039/ (18 June 2022)
Compiled by Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org)